Jeremiah Wright is the former pastor of Trinity UCC in Chicago. Where, in evangelical mega-church circles, 10,000 members is a medium-sized congregation, in the world of dwindling mainline churches, Trinity is a bona fide mega-church. Pastor Wright’s recent comments, however, illustrate another point of contact with evangelicals: he can’t seem to tell the difference between the kingdom of God and the civil kingdom.
There has been a lot of focus on Pastor Wright’s comments and whether they are anti-American or racist. As important as such questions are those are, the critics are missing an even more fundamental question: why is he or any minister speaking about such issues under the color of his ecclesiastical authority?
It was a commonplace for the liberal (mainline) churches much of the twentieth century to use the visible, institutional church to advance a particular social agenda. That movement has been described as “the social gospel.” In the 1970s the evangelicals and fundamentalists got into the act so that, after thirty years of religious conservative alliance with political conservatives (trying to “take back” America), the message of the church, whether on the right or left, is virtually indistinguishable from a socio-political message.
As an African-American Wright has been subject to a kind of suffering that I, as a middle-class white male, cannot understand. He belongs to a class of citizens that has been marginalized for much of their tenure in North America. These are obvious facts. Further increasing the temptation to use the pulpit and ministerial office to effect social change is the fact that, until quite recently, the church and her minister have had, in the black community, an enormous reservoir of authority and good will from which to draw. Until recently the church has been at the center of black communal life in a way that perhaps only other immigrant groups can understand. In those settings, whether in the African-American, Dutch-American, or Asian-American church, the lines between cult (worship and religion defined narrowly) and culture (the rest of our lives) are almost indistinguishable. In those settings going to church is still as much a cultural act as it is an act of religious devotion.
With increasing frequency through the civil rights movement of the 1960s black (and white mainline) churches became less and less oriented toward spiritual issues (faith, piety, godliness) and became vehicles for social change and improvement. It was no accident that the most influential civil rights leaders in the 1950s and 60s were black clergymen.
Though there is considerable outrage about Wright’s rhetoric, his language is not unique to black churches or liberal mainline churches. As I’ve listened to some of the more colorful clips I was reminded of the sort of rhetoric I once heard in fundamentalist churches in the 1970s and 80s from ministers who felt alienated from the mainstream of society and who felt threatened by social change and decay. Wright’s rhetoric is part of a tradition that has adherents of all sides of the political and cultural spectrum. How different is Wright’s language, in its essence, from the rhetoric of Gary North? Wright was only agreeing with Jerry Falwell that God was cursing America for her sins.
Wright and Fallwell turn to vituperation because they share a common belief in American uniqueness and because they both conflate the spiritual kingdom, the Kingdom of God represented by the visible church, with the common civil kingdom. When the civil kingdom disappoints their expectations (to achieve the desired civil-spiritual ends) America becomes the object of wrath. This is a mild version of American-Israelism or, in Wright’s case, Afro-American Israelism.
Fallwell and Wright are just two sides of the same confused coin. Rather than joining the chorus of condemnation of Wright’s rhetoric, we ought to insist that, as a minister Wright ought to fulfill the mandate for which he was ordained: to preach Christ and him crucified. Wright has a natural right, with all citizens, to speak as private persons to political and cultural questions, but, as a minister, he has no unique or God-given authority to speak to socio-political questions. The same is true for Mike Huckabee and Pat Robertson. If they want to be involved in politics vocationally (which is fine) then let them resign their ministerial offices.
This is not to say that Christians have nothing to say to cultural and social issues. We have much to say but the question is what ministers (and the church as a divine institution) may say and do in the name of Christ and as representatives of the Kingdom of God. Here we should take a lesson from our Lord. He could have called down legions of angels had he wanted to establish an earthly millennium. He did not. That is not why he came. He came preaching the Kingdom of God. He called sinners to repentance and faith. This was the apostolic pattern. They called Christians to live peaceful and quiet lives.
The fundamental scandal here is not Wright’s rhetoric as much as it is his use of the sacred office of minister of the Word of God for the promulgation of a socio-political and even partisan political agenda. Ministers, like the rest of us, live in two kingdoms at the same time, but in their office as minister, they cannot serve two masters.